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Ornette Coleman, 1930–2015

Hank Shteamer

New York has just lost a true creative giant: Ornette Coleman, an alto saxophonist and composer who did as much as household names Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane to revolutionize the face of jazz and American music at large. Coleman passed away this morning at age 85.

From a technical standpoint, it's easy to quantify Ornette's achievements. You'll often see him cited as the creator of so-called free jazz, the figure whose landmark late ’50s works such as The Shape of Jazz to Come—crafted in close collaboration with brilliant players such as Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell—liberated improvisers from playing over pre-established harmonic forms. But to reduce Ornette Coleman to a mere technical innovator belies the impact his music had on the legions who loved it.

Coleman, born in Fort Worth, TX, in 1930, was simply among the most human musicians American has ever known, an alto saxophonist with a zipping, darting, wailing, soaring sound that could at once induce a feeling of vertigo and a sensation of pure, heart-seizing joy. His greatest compositions, most famously "Lonely Woman" (which Lou Reed named as his favorite song of all time), distilled deep emotion into accessible, often unshakably catchy melodies. However radical Coleman's music is, unlike that of his contemporaries such as Cecil Taylor, it rarely feels imposing or impenetrable. Even when approaching chaos, it sings. It dances. It beckons. It invites you in.

Ornette Coleman had a special relationship with New York. It was here that he and his band made their famed, polarizing 1959 breakthrough at the Five Spot at 5 Cooper Square. Since that time, he's been a mainstay of the city's cultural life, opening the studio and performance space Artists House on Prince Street in 1970, and appearing regularly on local stages in the decades since with groups such as his electric ensemble, Prime Time, and the multibass band featured on his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2006 live recording, Sound Grammar. His live performances slowed in recent years, which made his surprise 2014 Prospect Park appearance—the last time Ornette Coleman played in public—particularly memorable. The caliber of musicians who showed up on that beautiful night, ranging from Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis and John Zorn to Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith and Flea, shows you just how wide Coleman's reach was. (Better to remember that concert, soon to get an official release, rather than the now-controversial New Vocabulary album that followed it.) He was bigger than jazz, or any genre you could name. Ornette was irreducible. He was simply Ornette.

We will miss this master player, but his songs live on. You'll see and hear countless tributes in the coming days. Tune in to local jazz outlet WKCR for an in-progress memorial broadcast. We leave you with the immortal "Lonely Woman."

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